Nov 7, 2018–My first exposure to “fine art” growing up was the work of Charlie Russell. My dad, who raised horses, loved the way Russell rendered them in his paintings, as well as the unadorned representation of the life of the cowboy that ironically emphasized the romance of the west.
We never owned any of Russell’s originals, but we admired them in the pages of coffee table books and Western Horseman magazines.
If only he had written us a letter! Turns out the prolific, self-taught artist corresponded with his many fans and cohorts by sending thoughtful, hand-written letters, in envelopes decorated with original small scenes. You can learn about these miniature mailed canvases at The Letters of CM Russell, presented on Thursday, November 8, as part of the Texas Hill Country Cowboy Gathering going on this weekend in Fredericksburg.
“Charlie Russell wrote these illustrated letters from 1880 to 1926,” said presenter Randy Reiman, who also will be performing as a cowboy poet and singer at the Cowboy Gathering. “He sent them to friends, and we know of over 400 for sure.”
These letters tell stories we are missing in our oh-so-convenient emails and texts. The postmarks revealed Russell’s eclectic travels. He sent them from cow camps, from the St. Louis World Fair, from New York City, from Florida, and from London, according to Reiman.
“The letters were mostly a way to stay in touch with friends and clients,” Reiman said. “They tell a story of what was happening in his life at that moment. Most are humorous, and also very poignant.”
Russell’s friends came from all parts of the arts community at the time, including Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks.
“Hollywood was fascinated with the west. So there was an incredible connection because of his artwork, but more because of his personality. Charlie Russell was an authentic westerner.”
That authentic core is what set him apart from other artists, even those with more training. But Russell was not a product of the eastern art schools. He was self-taught, and while not uneducated, he wasn’t connected in the east, where 90% of all publishing houses were located.
Reiman notes you can detect the primitive aspects of Russell’s early work, as he was trying to figure out how to draw both the equine and human form. But he kept at it because he was so enamored of it.
“He never called himself an ‘artist,’” Reiman said. “He considered himself an illustrator.”
His approach to his work was also a bit different. In order to work out perspective and light in a painting, Russell would sculpt the figures first, then paint from the model. Sculpting was easier for him, yet he was known as a painter.
Part of his appeal is that Russell was immersed in a remarkable time in history. He worked as a cowboy for 10 years. He saw the great herds of buffalo. He lived with the Blackfeet. And he saw it all vanish, as the land went from prairie to plow, and as native tribes were sent to reservations.
His lifespan straddled two centuries. He sailed on the ill-fated Lusitania before it was sunk by the U-boats. He lived through Prohibition. He watched as modern art gained a foothold. And he had something to say about it all.
“He addresses all those humorously and quite elegantly,” Reiman said. “He was not only a genius with a paint brush, he was also a gifted story teller.”
“I don’t do every letter every time,” he said. “I bring prime examples that show his wit and humorous insight to the table.”
It is an understatement to say that Reiman feels a deep affinity for his fellow Montanan.
“Charlie Russell is to Montana like J. Frank Dobie is to Texas. Russell was a known resource of a time period that passed before we were born,” he said. “He was a student of that time and a participant of that time. His reputation is in art, but his insights went way beyond the borders of Montana.”
More than anything, the event is a celebration of Charlie Russell, the man.
“It’s a real eye opener, even if you only have a passing knowledge of Charlie Russell,” Reiman said. “I’ll show an illustration of the letters on the screen, then read the letters that accompany that illustration. I give historical anecdotes about when the letter was written and what was going on historically, where Charlie was, who he wrote the letter to, and why it might be significant.”
The presentation runs an hour and a half. But in Reiman’s experience, that is not long enough for most audiences.
“They don’t want to leave,” he said. “They can’t get enough of the guy.”
The Letters of CM Russell will be presented at 7 pm on Thursday, November 8, at the FHS Auditorium. It is part of the Texas Hill Country Cowboy Gathering.
Information at www.texashillcountrycowboygathering.com